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Community Engagement Online


Community Engagement Online


We are in the midst of a time of unprecedented unpredictability, which is affecting almost every sector of society, and higher education is no exception.

Uncertainty is the defining characteristic of the pandemic. Right answers will only be apparent with hindsight. We have to adapt to the “new normal”, which is not normal at all.

Right around the world, people are trying to find ways to continue their normal business, under abnormal conditions. I believe we have to be flexible, adaptable, and able to accept and learn from failures. We almost certainly have to recalibrate our expectations.

I was therefore delighted that one aspect of “business as usual” has been able to continue – albeit in a new format – in St Mary’s: community engagement. Community engagement is part of the Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland, but more importantly, it is part of our mission, situated as we are in the heart of West Belfast. The Christian ideal of education has at its heart the fundamental worth of each person and the belief in a higher common good to which each aspires. The pursuit of academic excellence is a vital component, but so too is the affirmation of human dignity, and the empowerment of the disadvantaged. We seek to realise this through community engagement.

The College has been a principal venue for the West Belfast Festival for well over twenty years, and just as we have had to transition much of our teaching and learning to digital platforms, so this summer Féile an Phobail went online – whilst still using our campus as a base for socially-distanced recording of events.

We are immensely proud to be involved in Ireland’s biggest community arts festival and summer school.  We are especially delighted to facilitate the Debates and Discussion element of the Féile. As a higher education institution, we appreciate the dynamism and innovation that the Summer School brings to the local area each year. The Summer School is a quest for learning to enable continuous improvement and to facilitate a collective understanding of the cultural, economic, political and social context in which we find ourselves, be that here in Ireland or on a global scale.

It was therefore hugely encouraging that it was able to go ahead, given that it is no exaggeration to say that we all have to rethink just about everything that involves leaving our homes. Belfast Lord Mayor Frank McCoubrey praised the “agility and resilience” of the organisers of the Feilé for ensuring that the festival was able to go ahead in safety, and I would very much endorse that.

Following on from the Féile each year, we normally host the West Belfast Partnership Board Summer School.  The Summer School addresses the challenges of pupils who are transitioning from Primary to Post-primary school.  It attracts hundreds of pupils to the College campus each year. This community initiative also went online – whilst still using our campus, and like Féile it was a big success. There is much we can learn from our community partners. Agility and resilience are two characteristics that are going to be much needed in the months ahead.

Professor Peter B Finn
College Principal